In 2005 Dina Trageser, a singer performing with Seattle Pro Musica, fell in love with the harmonies and vocal styles of the Balkans.
Born in Germany and raised in Eugene, Oregon, she didn’t have any particular personal connection to Southeastern Europe. But something about the music captured her imagination. She gathered songs from around the Balkans at workshops and music camps, and recruited nine other women to sing them with her.
The result was Dunava, Seattle’s premier Balkan women’s chorus. The name is a variation on the word Danube — the river that meanders through the region.
“Balkan folk music may seem like an obscure genre,” Trageser notes. “But everyone who hears this music loves it. Songs from the Balkans are some of the most complicated but accessible and beautiful in the world.”
Trageser thought the project might last a year or two, but Dunava continued to expand its repertoire and audiences at venues like Northwest Folklife, Seattle Town Hall and numerous galleries and restaurants.
During a trip to Bulgaria in 2014, Dunava was featured on national radio and TV, and was the first American group to perform at the annual Kjustendil “Silver Buckle” folk festival.
Though they share the same name, “folk music” in Bulgaria and the rest of the Balkans is vastly different from the American music of the 1950s and 1960s that popularized “folk” as a genre. Those American songs generally carried a message of protest against some injustice. But in Europe, “Balkan folk” refers to songs whose authors are long forgotten. There is no explicit social message in the songs — rather, they talk of everyday life, seasonal changes, marriage, every-day joys and sorrows, and going to war.
During the Soviet era, Bulgaria invested heavily in local arts. A number of professional ensembles were created to perform instrumental music, singing and dance. Specialized high schools and colleges trained professional musicians, and they had busy, productive careers.
These schools and ensembles still exist, but the funding has been sharply cut, so many musicians had to take other jobs or leave the country. Students are choosing more lucrative and secure career paths — and leaving for Western Europe and the United States. These changes pose a severe challenge to traditional folk arts.
Today it’s more important than ever for groups like Dunava, and Dave and the Dalmatians, to continue sharing Balkan music with audiences at home and abroad.
Globalist writer Art Segal talked with Dina Trageser and her colleagues this summer, as they prepared for their tenth anniversary concert. Here are some excerpts from their conversation:
What’s new at Dunava?
We added two singers this summer who we’re very excited about — Jenny Sapora, who has been singing and dancing with the Radost Folk Ensemble, and Steph Boegeman, who learned Balkan with the Yale Slavic Choir. Jenny and Steph will debut in November at our anniversary concert.
And what’s different in the past few years?
I’d say that over ten years we’ve consistently improved the quality of our performance. We’ve expanded our repertoire because everyone wants to learn more songs, and we’ve already gone past the Balkans, musically, into the former Soviet republics: Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus.
Do you have a favorite song?
We always try to have something new for our audiences, but of course there are favorites. One that’s stayed around is a Bulgarian song, “Prehvrukna Ptichka” which has gorgeous Balkan harmonies, a soaring melody and strong alto line, and ends with a spectacular fortissimo on the words “radost golyama” – “great happiness.” If it’s not in every program, we have to perform it as an encore.
Has the popularity of Bulgarian folk music changed much in recent years?
Well, there’s still a lot of pride in national folklore, as [the National Festival of Bulgarian Folklore in] Koprivshtitsa shows. All over the country, a cable TV channel shows nothing but folk music videos all day — it’s a folk music version of MTV. The first thing I do at a hotel in Bulgaria is find that channel.
And the second thing you do?
Call my colleagues to set up a rehearsal!
Dunava will celebrate its tenth anniversary on November 14 with a performance in Shoreline with Dave and the Dalmatians – a men’s a cappella group performing Croatian songs – and the Croatian tamburitza ensemble named Bonaca. Tickets available here.